When fellow science journalist Seema Singh’s book ‘Myth Breaker’ with a gleaming cover portrait of India’s best known biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw landed on my desk, I was slightly sceptical of the contents. Another glossy biography, I thought to myself. A few pages into it and I was forced to change my mind. Here’s why.
(Reproducing a review of ‘Myth Breaker’ written on invitation by a national business daily.)
As a young reporter interested in India’s so-called biotech boom around the turn of the millennium, I was putting together a wish list of people to meet in Bangalore, the biotech boom town. And Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw’s name was obviously on top.
The newsroom had some interesting observations to offer when they heard the name: “Meeting the Czarina of India biotech, are we?” asked an informed colleague cheekily. “Quiz her well on the regulations — a lot that’s gone wrong in the sector is being attributed to her,” said another.
My meeting with Mazumdar-Shaw was cordial, sprinkled in good measure with her signature eye-smiles, despite some not-so-comfortable questions.
Among other things, I remember talking at length about Biocon’s newfound interest in monoclonal antibodies. Back in the newsroom though, the questions from colleagues lingered. “Was she tough?”, “She’s known to keep people waiting, did she?”, “Did she yield?” And some other unrelated curiosities.
That was indication enough — even with my fledgling journalistic acumen — that the woman was making a difference, raising eyebrows, marking a strong presence in India’s biotech sector.
A rare persona
Seema Singh’s book brings to life this brazenly confident woman — a tough negotiator, a tenacious fighter, a fierce protector of her company values and employees and the loudest voice today of India’s biotech sector. In ‘Myth Breaker’, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, comes across as a rare workaholic entrepreneur who rules the boardroom and, with equal ease, doesn’t spare a thought to take a month off and attend to her cancer-stricken husband in a London hospital.
‘Myth Breaker’ is also a well researched story of India’s biological sciences research, of the many enterprising and gutsy scientists who have made this landscape a breeding ground of innovation. Of failed experiments, scientists’ resentments with grant-giving agencies, of the birth of the biology boom.
And of interesting stories behind setting up of India’s Department of Biotechnology and pioneering laboratories such as the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, the Centre of DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and the Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology.
The narrative is woven around the biotechnology revolution that Mazumdar-Shaw spawned 10 years before the Indian government thought of creating a department of biotechnology. Singh aptly points to the rude reality that policy following entrepreneurship by a decade is ‘hara-kiri’ for a nation.
The buzzword in India’s science today is jugaad or frugal innovation — a concept being borrowed for optimum use of resources across the science-faring world. Mazumdar-Shaw and her aides used these very tools 40 years back to build capacity, acquire talent, innovate and escalate — adding one proverbial brick at a time to build the $ 1.5 billion Biocon empire. Going from enzymes to biopharmaceuticals, the company has been a trendsetter in sticking to biology-led innovations while many others gave in to the lure of pharma molecules and generics.
All this, obviously, was not achieved without hiccups and heartburns, tantrums and ego fights among employees — the book lays bare some of those interesting stories as well.
Spirit of resentment
Singh, an ace science and business journalist, took almost a year of digging for the back stories — travelling and interviewing scores of people who came on board, left midway or were laterally involved in the making of Biocon.
She meticulously Skyped up key overseas characters in the story (no email interviews, she insisted) to get an idea of the people in question and also to keep a record of what is essentially an oral history. “I had no idea that they had built all of this, it was only when I started writing that I figured how big it was,” she says. The book also gives much space to the innards of Biocon — its making and merging, crawling and grunting, preening and rumbling – which might be of interest to industry watchers, not necessarily to a lay reader. Singh says it was not meant to be an academic read, neither was it meant for everyone — its readership is select, by design.
One of my favourite bits from the book, however, is where Mazumdar-Shaw is at her cheekiest, tactless best. Unilever bought Biocon in 1989 and a large delegation of Unilever top shots descended in Bangalore to convince her to dilute stakes in the Indian operation.
Mazumdar-Shaw’s first slide during her presentation to this delegation said,” There are three types of companies: 1. Companies which make things happen; 2. Companies which watch things happen; 3. Companies which wonder what happened. Biocon India is the first type of company and Unilever is the third type.”
At 63, Mazumdar-Shaw continues to take on her detractors head on, sometimes tactfully, most times with this signature impertinence. Even on Twitter, where she fights off each and every troll zealously. And shoots out impassioned appeals to the powers in Delhi, time and again, to make life easier for biotech entrepreneurs in this country. She has minced no words on social media asking for a change in government policies to make it easier to ‘Make in India’.
Surviving the murky world of corporate acquisitions and bullying, she continues to uphold the spirit of resentment.
Singh captures this plucky woman’s journey well, giving us a parallel peak into the contemporary history of biological sciences in India.
Seema Singh is a journalist. Until 2013, she was a senior editor with Forbes (India). She has also written for publications such a The Times of India, Mint, IEEE-Spectrum, Red Herring, Cell, New Scientist and others. Singh has been a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation research grantee.